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A Rare Funerary Practice, Cannibalism, Prevailed In Europe 15,000 Years Ago: Study

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A new study revealed that cannibalism was a part of the funerary culture in Europe around 15,000 years ago.

A study published in the journal, Quaternary Science Reviews, pointed out that this was not performed in isolation. Researchers found gnawed bones and human skulls that were used as cups at Gough’s Cave in England. 

The research was based on the Magdalenian period of the late Upper Paleolithic era. The Magdalenians lived some 11,000 to 17,000 years ago.

59 Magdalenian sites containing human remains have been identified after the experts at London’s National History Museum reviewed the literature. While most of the sites were found in France, other sites also include Germany, Spain, Russia, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Portugal.

Researchers were able to identify funerary behaviors at 25 of the sites.

Among these, 15 sites showed evidence of human remains having chewing marks, skull bones with cut marks, and bones purposefully broken showing a pattern related to the extraction of bone marrow to obtain nutrients, suggesting that cannibalism was a routine practice.

In a press release, Silvia Bello, co-author of the study and a paleoanthropologist and principal researcher at the National History Museum, said, “Instead of burying their dead, these people were eating them.”

She added that cannibalism was “not simply practiced out of necessity.” She said, “That in itself is interesting because it is the oldest evidence of cannibalism as a funerary practice so far known.” 

The link between funeral behavior and genetic ancestry

Researchers combined the genetic information found from eight sites with the archaeological evidence to establish a link between funerary behavior and genetic ancestry

This resulted in the identification of two distinct ancestral groups: Magdalenian culture and a different European and geographically-distinct human culture called the Epigravettian, in the region during the same period.

Further, researchers discovered that people of the Magdalenian culture located in northwestern Europe preferred to consume their dead, while those belonging to the Epigravettian culture buried their dead without eating them.

The Natural History Museum stated in the release, “There was a shift towards people burying their dead, a behavior seen widely across south-central Europe and attributed to a second distinct culture, known as the Epigravettian.”

The study suggested that regular burials during the Upper Magdalenian depreciated due to the migration of individuals with Epigravettian-associated ancestry into areas where people with Magdalenian-related ancestry, who practiced funerary cannibalism, formerly inhabited.

William Marsh, the postdoctoral researcher at the museum, said in the press release, “We believe that the change in funerary behavior identified here is an example of demic diffusion where essentially one population comes in and replaces another population, and that brings about a behavior change.”

The authors of the study said that these are preliminary results that require to be analyzed at a larger scale as a thorough examination of the discovery is necessary.

Thomas Booth, a senior laboratory research scientist at the Francis Crick Institute who was not involved in the study, told CNN, an American tv channel and digital media site, Thursday: “We’re missing the remains of most people who lived in Europe during the Palaeolithic and so it can always be tricky to be sure of what people did with their dead. However, this study provides pretty convincing evidence that ritual funerary cannibalism was practiced by people across Europe 20,000-14,000 years ago.”

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